A world-renowned brand and design expert with the 35-year history, with dozen of international design awards, which has repositioned Glenfiddich three times and Campari and Chivas Regal twice, — this is all about Claessens International. Company’s creative director, James Boulton, shares his vision on some latest trends in packaging design for alcoholic drinks, talks about their experience with Russia and discusses how globalisation influences the drinking culture around the world.
Popsop: Claessens International works with drinks and beverage manufacturers predominantly. How did the economic recession of 2008-2009 and post-recovery period influence your business? Have you had more clients/projects during these tough times, as it’s a fact that people tend to drink more alcohol in the downturn?
J.B.: The downturn effected not just our business, but the whole drinks industry in a positive way. While people still had money they became much more considered as to how they spent it. This meant that all the gimmicks and “fashionable” off-the-wall elements of drinks design became less relevant, as consumers looked for reassurance that their money was buying a quality product that had stood the test of time, and had been developed with knowledge and experience. This has meant that the emphasis in branding has shifted towards reinforcing a brand’s heritage, authenticity and genuineness. Over the course of the past few years, brands have become a valuable commodity and continued brand development a powerful asset.
For Claessens, this has probably been the busiest time in our 35-year history. For exactly the same reasons that consumers are buying into brands, so companies have to ensure they spend their money wisely. When you’re looking for a company to develop your brand, it is essential that you look widely to find one with a long-standing track record of bringing success to their clients’ brands. This is the reason companies continually seek out our depth of expertise.
Certainly it’s true that in good times and bad times people continue to drink, but that wasn’t what created the buoyancy in our market. This came from the understanding that buying into the real thing guarantees satisfaction, and in turn that means increased sales and therefore profits. A successfully developed drinks brand equals a positive return on investment.
Popsop: Based on your experience, what’s the ‘most drinking’ country/nation in the world nowadays? How does the drinking culture in different parts of the world evolve over last 10-15 years?
J. B.: In many ways this is a difficult question to answer. You could say that Russia has traditionally drunk most, certainly within the vodka sector. However, some hotter countries drink more in the beer sector. I don’t think it’s really down to who drinks the most, more what as a nation is happening with their politics and their economy. If you look at India, for example, there is a rising population of younger, middle class consumers with disposable income. These people are buying into drinks brands as a status symbol. So drinks brands in India are booming. In Brazil a similar thing is happening. Brazil is a vast country with an enormous population, and with its economy booming, the level of alcohol consumption is rising dramatically. So it’s a far more complex question than simply who drinks the most.
As for the evolution of the industry over the past 10-15 years, people are now much more open to new categories and drinks. In no small part this has been driven by the fact that drinks companies themselves have become more global and unified. Most small companies are now owned by bigger multinational organisations that have the distribution muscle to put more brands on shelves around the world. At the other end of the scale companies see this as an opportunity to bring more niche brands to market targeting specific consumer sectors, therefore the array of products available is dramatically increased from what it was 10 years ago. Unquestionably, this has had an influence on drinking cultures around the world.
Popsop: You’ve got clients from all over the world. Interestingly, you’ve done some projects in the Asian countries like Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea etc, which are not traditionally considered to be wine or spirit consuming countries. What were those projects?
J. B.: Our specialism is beverage brand development, and this covers everything from soft drinks, water, milks etc through to beers, wines and spirits.
In Saudi Arabia we actually worked with one of the country’s biggest milk producers on a specific dual-language branding. The project was to turn a standard milk carton into a branded milk carton. India, on the other hand, is a huge spirit consuming country, and we’ve actually worked with most sectors in the market: beers, whiskies, rums, brandies and wines.
Our work over there started with the redevelopment of the UB Group portfolio. Probably the most prominent within this was McDowells No 1 whisky. Despite the fact that there is no drinks advertising in India, the brand development we undertook on McDowells resulted in a three million case increase. Having worked on the brand a second time five years later, the same increase in sales occurred due to the fact we developed the brand correctly for the changing needs of the consumer.
Throughout both stages, development of the brand was an evolutionary process, however, the reasons for the developments were very different. The aim of the first – in the early 2000s – was to bring higher quality whisky credentials into the McDowells No 1 brand to give it an international feel in order to compete with the foreign whisky brands coming into the market. Suddenly the local brand stepped up to look as good if not better than the imported brands. The aim of the second brand development was to add modernity and a more iconic feel in order to capitalise on the rise of a new younger consumer with growing disposable income.
Popsop: Please, tell us about your experience with Russia, the home country of vodka and one of the most drinking nations in the world. Which brands do you work with on this market? What are your predictions on its growth this year?
J. B.: We’ve worked in Russia now for over 20 years, covering vodkas predominantly, but also beers, mineral waters, wines, brandies and sparkling wines. Russia is a fascinating market as it moves incredibly quickly. It’s easily the fastest changing market we work in – even in the vodka sector. In this type of market it is essential that brands understand how to capitalise on the ever-changing nature of the sector in terms of price, position and quality. Throughout the downturn we have worked alongside our clients to help them do this, ensuring, for example, that companies which had super premium vodkas also had offering in other tiers of the market to cover exposure, and vice versa.
What we have seen, and what you will continue to see, is that Russia is becoming increasingly proud of its own Russian heritage. When we first worked in the market, local brands were pushing to look like imported western brands. Now the emphasis is on creating brands that espouse their Russian heritage. And this is giving way to a move away from simply trying to gain shelfspace and out-do competitors, towards branding that communicates the product’s attributes of knowledge and heritage crafted over time.
Popsop: Which common trends have you seen in packaging design for alcohol drinks globally in the last 2-5 years? How do they vary from country to country, or depend on the category etc?
J. B.: One answer is that people are looking for something that has good price expectation and good authentic credentials. Of course there are some variations from country to country and in different categories, and brands are looking to emphasise what makes them unique.
In the beer sector, for example, we are seeing a shift towards treating the product as a lifestyle commodity. This means that rather than promoting Heineken, for example, as just a beer the company is now investing in embracing the consumer to get them to buy into the world of Heineken and everything that brings. This means engaging with people across all their activities and passtimes, and surrounding them with the brand and allowing it to become part of the consumer’s lifestyle.
Furthermore, authenticity is being built back into brands. We no longer have room on shelf for the off-the-wall and crazy. When it comes to brand development it is important to communicate honestly with the consumer, so that they don’t feel tricked. With people making much more considered and conscious decisions on how they should spend their money, brands need to really understand their consumer and what they expect to see. This has created a far more considered approach to brand development, although we often see mistakes being made and these can prove very costly.
Popsop: Premium spirits global market. Which are the strongest brands on it and why?
J. B.: There are so many strong brands out there that it is difficult to pick just one. However, the essence of a strong brand is one that has been carefully looked after and that has strong, recognisable brand assets. These are not brands where the owners have thought “I have a successful brand and sales are good so, I’ll leave it there”. The strongest are ones that say “I’m number one and I’m going to keep developing my brand to stay number one”. These are brands that have been cared for over time.
Having said it’s a difficult choice, Jack Daniels is a great example of a strong brand that is looked after very carefully. It doesn’t talk down to the customer and although it appeals to young people it is not designed to look young and modern. The brand message focuses on explaining what Jack Daniels is all about and this makes people want to buy into it. As a brand owner you always need to think about how you bring the next generation into your brand, and the sense authenticity and being the “real thing” is key to this in Jack Daniels’ case.
Johnny Walker is another example of a strong global brand, one that has powerful brand assets built around the shape of the bottle and the position of the label. These assets have always remained true to the brand over the years and have allowed the brand to become an iconic image within the global spirits market. It would be very hard to create a whisky to challenge Johnny Walker due to the strength of these brand assets, and this makes it an incredible powerful brand.